Laura Ellen Bacon: meet the willow queen
Words Diana Woolf
Photographs Alun Calendar
In this exclusive extract from Issue 15, we discover how the acclaimed artist has been fashioning elaborate sculptural forms out of natural material ever since creating complex treehouses as a child. ‘There’s lots of muscle involved’, she explains…
The 40-year-old Derbyshire-based artist Laura Ellen Bacon is best known for her weird and wonderful willow sculptures. She makes vast, amoeba-like forms which curl and flow across gallery spaces or drip down walls like some intriguing alien growth with a life of its own. Their organic shapes are strangely sensual and uncanny at the same time. Most are built up with individual sticks of willow that Bacon knots and weaves and twists and pulls using a random, intuitive technique she has developed herself. Close up, the sculptures are highly complex, with the individual strands of willow creating elaborate, baroque curlicues and scrolls deep within their body – but for Bacon the pieces are really about their bold, sinuous shapes rather than any particular materials or techniques used in their making. ‘The eye should be drawn to the outline of the whole form, but if you do look at the detail there should be a certain quality of line within the weave,’ she explains.
Bacon’s sculptures are inspired by a deep-seated desire to make shapes and spaces that surround and envelope the body. ‘All my shapes start off as forms you can get inside, so the whole thing began with me moving sticks around and getting that thrill of, “Right, well I’ve just made that and I’m in it”.’ She traces this back to her childhood obsession with treehouses. ‘Mum and Dad set up a fruit farm in the 1970s – in the Good Life days – and I was always outside, like some feral child, making dens and treehouses. Making a space to call my own was absolutely thrilling,’ she remembers. But these outside spaces were not your common-or-garden den: rather they were complex structures that Bacon spent years creating. ‘I had about four treehouses, and the biggest was a massive two-storey one built between five trees. It started off tiny and grew and grew. It was a complete mess, but it was amazing to me and I was compelled to keep going and adding to it for years.’ Bacon used wood sneaked from supplies provided by her joiner grandfather for her parents’ boiler – as well as brushwood lying around the farm and, in a nod at things to come, old raspberry canes from the fruit farm. ‘Although their texture is very different to willow they are a similar length and size – and I used them a lot,’ she recalls.
Bacon had no idea that this childhood obsession would lead to a career as a professional sculptor, although she happily did an art foundation course at Chesterfield College before going on to do a degree in applied arts at Derby University. ‘I didn’t know what on earth I was going to do, but thought I might end up working in a gallery,’ she says. It wasn’t until her final year at University that something clicked. ‘I told a tutor about the treehouses and explained about that huge creative fire I had when I was younger and how it had never been replaced by any other technique I had learned at college and he said, “OK, we need to work big then!”’
Space was cleared for Bacon and, with her tutor’s encouragement, she moved her work from the confines of the desktop to a large area of floor. Here she started experimenting with making formed spaces inspired by memories of her childhood dens, using tree branches delivered by her mother in ‘car loads’. The only problem was that Bacon found she never had enough material to make what she wanted. ‘I was using it up too fast and not making enough form,’ she says. In a bid to solve this problem, she turned to willow.
‘It’s quite random, you have to touch and feel it as you go – the work’s not built up with any set techniques’
It was a practical solution to a supply issue, but it was to prove a significant turning point in her creative journey. ‘You could get willow in a large quantity – and when you sniped the bundle open and all these sticks crashed to the floor, I thought that was great – there’s something in this.’ Although Bacon’s technique is often likened to basketry, she had no training in how to work willow – she just knew that it was the right material for her. ‘I felt I really wanted to knot this material together myself and work out how to join it and what those forms would generate. I just found my own ways to use it,’ she says.
The making process that Bacon developed following this lightbulb moment is relatively simple, but highly effective. ‘I start with two sticks at a time and build and build and build and eventually a framework appears,’ she says, likening the process to creating a hatched drawing in which the form is built up with lots of tiny marks. ‘I have to get a bit of structure and then I can bulk it up by weaving certain areas in to make it dense and hard and then carry on with the framework and tease it out,’ she explains. ‘It’s quite random, you have to touch and feel it as you go – the work’s not built up with any set techniques. I am always thinking about form and I am always literally feeling a shape as it grows within the willow.’
Bacon taught herself how to join the willow together by a combination of knotting and weaving – although she is wary of the term ‘willow weaving’. ‘It suggests ease of use and natural flow and something that is quite genteel,’ she says, ‘but my work isn’t like that as there’s lots of muscle involved: the willow has to be forced into place.’ She tries to work with the natural properties of the willow, exploiting its flex and flow, but it doesn’t always behave as she wants it to and sometimes has to be brutally manipulated into position. The work is all done by hand and, Bacon explains, ‘Whenever I am creating a sculpture I am just using my bare hands, handling the material and feeling the twist and flex of the material.’
Once Bacon developed her own way of working willow, she was off. After leaving university in 2001 she spent a few years finding her artistic feet and ‘getting a handle on where I was truly going’ – but by 2004 she had built up enough of a reputation to get selected for the Crafts Council’s exhibition Out There, winning a Crafts Council Development Award along the way, and then her first solo show, Nesting Vessels at Hove Museum and Art Gallery the following year. Having been selected as a finalist for the 2017 Women’s Hour Craft Prize (launched to reward ‘originality and excellence in concept, design and process’), she is part of the accompanying exhibiton at London’s V&A until February 5. (Her solo show, Rooted in Instinct, is also showing at the National Centre for Craft and Design, Sleaford, until January 14).
Given her fascination with form, growth and movement, it’s not surprising that her recent pregnancy has fed into the work, specifically in a piece called The Shape of First Thoughts. This consists of two pieces made in her trademark willow, one a large wall-hung panel and the other a five-metre long piece lying lower alongside – together they create an immersive corridor-like space down which the viewer can walk. ‘The title has to do with two things,’ explains Bacon. ‘One is this sense of instinct and how these structures and shapes are pulled from the mind – and the other is to do with the movement of the baby. All the time I’m working, there’s this strange knocking and kicking going on inside me and I’ve been contemplating what on earth it must be like for the baby to get this sense of form and feel that space around you. I know there’s not a lot of thinking going on in there, but I wonder what the shape of those first thoughts are.’
A second piece, A New Presence, marks a departure for Bacon as it is made using thatch rather than willow. She’s been given an Arts Council grant to experiment with this new material and has used it to make a giant sculpture that the viewer can enter and then experience the sensation of being immersed in the thatch. ‘I wanted to create a structure that brings the thatching right around you rather than just being used as a topping,’ she says. ‘Although thatching is visually a long way from willow, as it’s laid and runs smoothly in the same direction, it has the same sense of accumulation and density and that really appeals to me.’ Bacon hopes to continue her experiments with thatch next year as well as other different media and says plans for new work, which include two large-scale commissions, are fast gaining momentum in the studio. Expect more accumulation and density for 2018…